For three years I’ve been thinking about divorcing my husband. Google tells me there are trillions of nerves in my body, and Barry has gotten under every last one. The scary thing is I’ve never lived alone, not once in 54 years.
Now, since lunch, I’m wondering if there might be a third option.
A few years ago, Steve Walker was behind me in line at the coffee kiosk. I work for Simms and Harper on the second floor; he works at Walker and Wenzel on the sixth. My eyes met Steve’s strands of thick light brown hair, perfectly parted on the left, that part line as straight as a road in rural Kansas.
We struck up a conversation about local politics or global warming. The following day, I made sure to go for coffee at the same time. Pretty soon Steve and I were eating lunch together every day. Sometimes we leave the building, walk to a local diner.
I don’t know whether or not this is proper behavior, but if you knew my husband, you’d understand how desperate I am to carry on a normal conversation with a normal human being.
At lunch today, Steve told me he is getting a divorce.
Barry and I get home from work around the same time. Today he’s standing in the hallway between the kitchen and the living room when I open the back door. He hasn’t started dinner, dishes are piled precariously in the drainer from last night, and mail is poking out of our box. As soon as my butt makes contact with one of our kitchen chairs, a fart noise from Barry’s phone breaks the silence of our unsaid greetings.
Sarcasm is lost on Barry.
Barry plops down across from me at the table. His eyes are still glued to his iPhone. For the first time in a month or two, I look at him. His curly black hair is a mass of cowlicks that never could be cultivated with cream-of-the-crop conditioners. Not that he’s ever tried any of the hair products I’ve left for him in the shower.
“Did you comb your hair this morning?”
“Listen to this one.” The fart goes on for a minute. He collapses with laughter.
“Nobody farts that long.”
“That’s what’s funny about it.”
“All of them sound pathetic, too high-pitched. You didn’t pay for that, did you, Barry?”
“Maybe two ninety-nine.”
I groan, push my palms into my temples to keep my brain from exploding. “I remember now, it was free.” Barry is a lousy liar.
I stand up, and I let one go. “That’s what a fart is supposed to sound like.”
Fifty minutes later, when I return to the kitchen after watching a “Breaking Bad” episode, Barry is still sitting in the exact same position, head down, hypnotized by whatever app he’s purchased.
I say, “How about picking us up some burgers from Laughing Belly?”
“Only if you go with me.”
There are two cars ahead of us in the drive-through. “I don’t know why I agreed to come here,” Barry says. “Their burgers always give me diarrhea.”
“They sure taste great going down though.”
Barry moves up, and a young girl’s voice filters through the intercom. “Welcome to Laughing Belly.”
Barry leans out his open window and says, “We’ll have two Diet Cokes and two explosive diarrheas.”
“Two burgers and two Diet Cokes. That’ll be fourteen ninety-nine. Please pay at the second window.”
Tears sparkle on Barry’s long wasted-on-a-man eyelashes, he’s laughing so hard. “She didn’t miss a beat. When I said ‘explosive diarrhea,’ she knew I was talking about the burgers, not anything else on the menu.”
“Hysterical.” Again, lost.
Or maybe not. “You don’t laugh like you used to, Tiff,” Barry observes.
Our last kid moved out three years ago. That’s when I realized I’d always had an extra one — a kid who’s six years older than I am.
“Nothing’s funny anymore.”
Tomorrow Barry has an appointment with Dr. Hammer to get a physical exam.
He turned 60, and his health insurance insists on it.
“Right before the doc sticks his finger up my butt, I’m going to say ‘It’s Hammer Time.’”
“Why would you say that, Barry?”
“You know, MC Hammer.”
I stare at him.
“The baggy pants guy.”
I sigh. “I know who MC Hammer is, Barry. But I’ll have to get a new doctor if you go in there and embarrass us like that.”
“You’re right. He’s probably heard it a hundred times.”
“I promise you, Barry, he has heard it zero times. Because it’s not funny.”
We pay for our Cokes and burgers, and Barry drives us home, where, immediately after eating, we will fight for the use of the bathroom.
See what I mean about longing to carry on a normal conversation with a normal human being?
Today, all through lunch, Steve looks at me like he’s asked me a question and is waiting for an answer. Whenever somebody opens the door to the diner, a breeze blows Steve’s hair, but his part remains straight-road Kansas.
We’re carrying on a nice conversation about the new traffic pattern on the southbound lanes of the boulevard — or Steve is, because I don’t drive on the boulevard.
My phone rings. I pull it out of my purse. Barry’s bulging eyes and the rest of his weird-looking face fill up the screen. I almost drop the thing.
Barry says, “I just wanted to let you know I’ll be late getting home. I have to get some labs drawn after work for my prostate.”
He hasn’t said the word “cancer,” but it’s the only one I hear, and I think: No More Barry.
I hang up.
I stand up.
I grow up.
Steve says, “What’s wrong?”
“Us. Us is what’s wrong.”
The last time I see Steve, (except in passing), a few wispy strands of hair have fallen onto the wrong side of his head.
Jan Allen’s short stories have appeared in Every Day Fiction, The MacGuffin and fellow-writer-voted Sixfold.